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Legal Updates

Massachusetts Court Gives Green Light To Lawsuit Arising From College Campus Closure

A recent decision by a Massachusetts Superior Court judge provides further insight into how courts may view claims by parents or students against independent schools and institutions of higher education (“IHEs”) arising from the shut-down of in-person classes due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

In Moran v. Stonehill College, Inc., the court allowed a parent to proceed with a lawsuit against his son’s college based on the college’s suspension of in-person operations last March. The court concluded, in particular, that the parent had alleged sufficient facts to support a claim that Stonehill’s abrupt shift from in-person to remote classes, without financial reimbursement to parents or students, constituted a breach of contract.

Background

In response to the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic last March, most educational institutions in the United States, including independent schools and IHEs, were forced to close their campuses and pivot to remote learning for the remainder of the school year. While some schools reimbursed parents and students for portions of their previously paid tuition and fees, others did not.

Some students and parents argued that remote learning resulted in a diminished educational experience, and therefore filed lawsuits demanding refunds of tuition and fees. Courts have only recently begun issuing opinions in these cases, thereby providing guidance as to what, if anything, could constitute a valid legal claim against a school.

The Stonehill Case

Stonehill College is a private college that has long offered both in-person and online instruction. Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, Stonehill offered online classes at a lower cost than in-person classes. Stonehill’s marketing materials also emphasized the importance and value of the on-campus instructional experience.

When Stonehill closed its campus due to COVID-19 and moved all of its instruction online in March 2020, residential students and their parents, including plaintiff Paul Moran, were given a partial credit for the spring semester’s portion of their room and board fee, as well as a refund of all unused dollars on their meal plans. Stonehill did not offer any credits or refunds for tuition or other fees, including for services that could not be utilized remotely, such as parking and the recreation center.

Moran filed suit in Massachusetts Superior Court against Stonehill on behalf of himself, his son, and a proposed class of similarly situated individuals, asserting various claims, including breach of contract, unjust enrichment, and violation of the Massachusetts consumer protection law, G.L. Chapter 93A. Moran sought, in part, reimbursement for the differences in charges between in-person and online education.

To support a claim for breach of contract, Moran alleged that his son and the other purported class members would not have attended Stonehill but for the in-person classes provided on its campus. Moran alleged that, in addition to its admissions agreement, Stonehill’s marketing materials and online catalog were part of an implied contract between the college and its students and parents. Further, Moran claimed that Stonehill’s online catalog emphasized the benefits and importance of an in-person education, which was further reflected in the college’s different tuition rates between in-person and online education.

Court’s Ruling On Motion To Dismiss

The Superior Court denied Stonehill’s motion to dismiss Moran’s claims of breach of contract and unjust enrichment. In permitting these claims to proceed, the court rejected Stonehill’s argument that Moran was actually asserting an invalid claim for “educational malpractice” – in essence, a tort-based claim that students were given instruction of an unacceptably deficient quality. In many jurisdictions, courts have held that claims of educational malpractice are not legally cognizable, based on deference given to educators and administrators in their areas of expertise, concerns about infringing on educational institutions’ First Amendment rights, and the difficulty of asking a judge or jury to determine what constitutes an “acceptable” quality of education.

In Stonehill, the court found that Moran’s complaint did not challenge Stonehill’s judgment in closing its campus and providing students with online instruction; instead the court held that Moran’s allegations were “akin to a garden variety breach of contract action” because the complaint simply alleged that the proposed class members “did not receive the benefit for which [they] had bargained.” Because Stonehill was also asserting that there was no contract between the college and Moran, the court also refused to dismiss the unjust enrichment claim, finding Stonehill’s arguments on that claim premature.

By contrast, the court dismissed Moran’s unfair trade practices claim, holding that Chapter 93A does not apply to non-profit IHEs when they are actively “furthering [their] core mission of providing education to students.” The court found that Stonehill’s decisions regarding its response to the pandemic were, indeed, just that; therefore, the college was not engaged in trade or commerce and Chapter 93A did not apply.

Similar Cases In Other Courts

In support of its ruling, the Superior Court took note of several other recent court decisions reaching similar conclusions, particularly two recent actions in Massachusetts federal court.

In one of these cases, In re: Boston University COVID-19 Relief Litigation, a Massachusetts federal district court judge denied Boston University’s motion to dismiss a similar lawsuit, on the basis that the university’s marketing materials and other documents indicated that students would be given in-person education in physical locations and be able to use the university’s facilities. Therefore, the court concluded, there were facts sufficient to support a claim for breach of contract based on students’ reasonable expectations.

Conversely, in Chong v. Northeastern University, the same federal judge dismissed similar claims on the grounds that (i) the plaintiffs had not alleged sufficient facts supporting their contention that their agreement with Northeastern University included a guarantee of in-person instruction, and (ii) the agreements regarding most facility fees specified only that the student was paying “to support” the facilities, and not necessarily to enjoy physical access to them.

Implications For Independent Schools And IHEs

It is important to note that the Stonehill lawsuit and the other cases alluded to above are still in their preliminary phases and have not been decided on the merits. Nonetheless, it is significant that recent court decisions in Massachusetts and other jurisdictions have concluded that parents and students may have valid claims based on the shutdown of in-person classes due to the COVID pandemic.

These cases suggest that courts evaluating claims for breach of contract may consider documentation outside of formal contracts – such as marketing materials touting the value of in-person classes in comparison with remote learning. Further, where a plaintiff’s complaint properly pleads a breach of contract, courts appear increasingly reluctant to dismiss such a claim on the basis that the claim is an educational malpractice claim in disguise.

These developments also reinforce the importance for independent schools of providing clear enrollment contracts that give a school the flexibility to alter its educational methods as necessary. Similarly, marketing materials should be carefully worded to avoid unconditional promises of in-person classes, or statements that might be read as devaluing online instruction.

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If you have any questions about the Stonehill decision or the issues it raises, please feel free to contact one of our experienced education lawyers.

*Brian B. Garrett gratefully acknowledges the assistance of Elizabeth Sherwood, formerly with Schwartz Hannum PC, in preparing this article.